Keeping alive Turkey’s history of enforced disappearances

View Gallery 10 Photos
All images from the series The Land of the Disappeared © Zilan Imşik

This article is part of the Education collection, a series of interviews highlighting student and early career photographers. 

Zilan Imşik creates shimmering images around four Turkish cities to memorialise Kurdish disappearances in the 1980s and 90s 

In Zilan Imşik’s multimedia project The Land of the Disappeared, the Kurdish artist uses photography, installation and sound to recreate the atmosphere of Turkey’s Kurdish provinces in the 1980s and 90s. 

“After the military coup d’état in 1980, people used to disappear at the hands of the government,” the 26-year-old explains. The disappearances were mainly concentrated in the east of the country, with cases surging into the 1990s. “Most of the disappeared were either politicians, local community leaders, or people with left-wing political views,” she says. “Although in truth anyone could go missing. No-one was safe.”

“Knowing that the disappeared could be someone from my family was something I felt in my guts, and unless we start to talk about what has happened in the past we can’t stop it from happening again.”

Born in Istanbul, Imşik is now based in South London, and she began the project in 2022 while studying an MA at the London College of Communication. She had grown up listening to stories of the disappearances and her family knew people who had been taken, so the impact upon her was profound.

“As Kurds, these stories are part of our collective memory,” she says. “Knowing that the disappeared could be someone from my family was something I felt in my guts, and unless we start to talk about what has happened in the past we can’t stop it from happening again.”

To help her begin the project, Imşik’s father put her in touch with a friend – a man whose own father had gone missing and was later found dead. Listening to his stories was painful, Imşik says, but it helped her to realise how she wanted to go about the work. “I decided to give a place to the disappeared by creating the absence of them, so there are no faces in the project.” After researching locations, Imşik settled on making landscape images, and travelled to four Turkish cities associated with the disappearances: Diyarbakır, Şırnak, Siirt, and Batman. 

She then turned her attention to printing, which became the most significant part of the process. The photographs are printed onto a metal plate, and then white paper using repeated layers of varnish. “The prints appear white from a distance, however when viewed closely different parts of the photographs become visible and invisible as they are lit from different angles,” Imşik describes. “I wanted to use this method as these places are more than simply landscapes; they represent the disappeared.” 

When The Land of the Disappeared is exhibited, Imşik accompanies the photographs with two plinths: one displaying a model of a white Renault 12 – the car that would arrive to take people away – and the other bearing a telephone. Equipped with a motion sensor, the phone begins to ring whenever someone approaches, but if they answer they hear only human breathing through the receiver. Imşik wants the audience to not just see, but to feel something of the tense atmosphere around the disappearances. 

At times, Imşik’s images are so pale that they are almost completely invisible, giving form to what she calls an “unphotographable and ungraspable” subject. Ultimately, she says, it’s something she wants to experiment with further as the project develops. “Even today, the state refuses to acknowledge its involvement with these cases,” Imşik explains. In this context, work like hers is essential in ensuring history is neither forgotten nor rewritten.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London